Author Of Bestseller ‘Brood’ On Chickens, Boise State And That Provocative New York Times Review
Brood, one of the best reviewed novels of the first half of 2021, is indeed about a brood of chicken, as well as the act of brooding. But it’s about much more — primarily a woman struggling with identity.
“She's feeling outcast from this life. She thought she would live in a social sense, but also almost internally because she wanted to be a mother,” said Jackie Polzin, author of Brood. “And she's confronting the possibility that she won't be a mother. That was between accepting the identity she has, versus how she imagined herself.”
Polzin visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about her time in Boise State’s creative writing MFA program, urban chickens, and getting a rave review in a rather provocative critique in The New York Times.
“My thesis advisor, Emily Ruskovich said right away, ‘The title needs to change.’”
Read the full transcript below:
GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Brood…Brood: it's a noun, it's a verb. It certainly concerns humans and animals. It conjures images of families, of people, and creatures, great and small. Brood is also the title of one of the best reviewed novels of the first half of this year. And the author is Jackie Polzin. Good morning.
JACKIE POLZIN: Good morning, George. It's a real pleasure to be here.
PRENTICE: I want to start with the narrator, the center of Brood. She is certainly known by her neighbors, her friends and family, but she is unnamed. Can you talk to me about the choice not to name your lead character?
POLZIN: So initially in writing this, it was just instinctual to not name the narrator. And probably I'm not alone as a writer in delaying the naming of a narrator. Sometimes a name can actually give direction. But so that instinct just prevailed throughout the piece. And I think there are a couple reasons for that. One of them is that you feel like you're in the narrator's head. And that kind of gave me permission to leave her unnamed. But also there's these social forces at work where she's struggling with infertility. She's suffered a loss. She's feeling outcast from this life. She thought she would live in a social sense, but also in almost internally because she wanted to be a mother. And she's confronting the possibility that she won't be a mother. That was between accepting the identity she has, versus how she imagined herself, I think it allowed me to leave her unnamed to feel like she's in that stage of having to accept becoming someone different than she imagined. So, she remains unnamed.
PRENTICE: Did you push and pull that decision or was it organic as you completed the story?
POLZIN: It felt very organic to me. One other thought I've had about it is that as a working title for this story… it is called Brood, as you already picked apart a little bit. The working title was The Chicken Diaries.
PRENTICE: What? That sounds like a like an absolutely humorous novel. It sounds whimsical.
POLZIN: I love that reaction because I think it functioned for me on many levels as a working title. It did not really function as a title for the book in completed form,. And part of what it did is it allowed me to maintain… to understand that my point of view was always almost right there close to this. The narrator is sharing some things that aren't outwardly shared, like a sort of private encounter with the narrator's thinking. And so just the word “diary” helped me to always maintain that proximity. And then The Chicken Diaries was sort of using the chickens as this engine to explore something, to explore grief, to explore caretaking in all the forms it's available to us. So as a working title, it was sort of like a little tiny map of what I was trying to do. But then when I first met with my thesis advisor, because this project was my thesis project at Boise State, I got my MFA there. I brought the project with me, continued to work on it and left with it unfinished. But my time at Boise was very important to finishing the book. My thesis advisor, Emily Ruskovich said right away, “The title needs to change.” The Chicken Diaries can't be the title because her reaction was probably something like yours.
PRENTICE: So I want to talk about chickens and the fact that you came to Boise, a city that is rather welcoming to urban chickens. This is… what? A happy accident?
POLZIN: Yeah. It was a happy accident. So I moved to Boise from Minneapolis and Boise was my notion of Boise was just this exotic place that I knew nothing really about it….
PRENTICE: I'm sorry. I have heard many things about Boise. “Exotic” has never been part of that conversation.
POLZIN: I suppose in that sense is it was completely unknown to me and therefore like a grand adventure. But what's funny about using the word exotic, which does not quite seem fitting having lived in in Boise, but it's a matter of perspective. On my way…biking to a class there…my biking route from my place to school took me past the Boise Zoo, which is not really apparently the zoo from certain angles. And there were two giraffes sticking their heads up. And I thought, to me, the sense of adventure just kept growing from the time I arrived there.
PRENTICE: Did you own chickens before you came to Boise? I'm wondering where your experience came from, because it is so particular in the book.
POLZIN: So, my experience raising chickens was in north Minneapolis.
PRENTICE: So you did raise chickens,
POLZIN: Chickens for about probably six years, not really doing the research on chickens and Boise. We were renting a place. So it would have required a little bit of coordination with a landlord to say, “Oh” we're bringing our chickens along. So we did not bring our chickens. We had only, I think, three chickens at the time and my mother ended up taking the chickens for us anyway. So then we moved to Boise and our next door neighbor had chickens that were not only free in their yard, they were often in the street and in our yard. So it was very funny to see how loose the chicken regulations are in Boise. I think that's fantastic.
PRENTICE: Can we talk for a second about The New York Times Review experience?
PRENTICE: After I read your book, I found the review in The Times. I want to make sure I've got it here. As you probably know, the review begins with this sentence: “This is my last book review.” So it was…hold it. What? And it's Elizabeth McCracken, a novelist of her own and her review, by the way, it is a rave for certain…. is that she's just not terribly sure that novelists should review other novelists. Would you ever consider reviewing another novelist on such a high profile as The New York Times?
POLZIN: Hmm. It's a daunting prospect because the time and energy put into that, I would love to think I'm generous enough with my time and energy, though I doubt it to just delve into another person's work, understand it, understand what came before and after the work, possibly to give this broad perspective and then clarify all that thinking in language. It's so much work.
PRENTICE: It has spun off its own separate online debate, the review of the review, if you will. But in my business, I should never bury the headline. And that is she makes a point of saying, “This is a truly wonderful book.” Kudos to you. I'm sure it's the 100th time you've been asked this: Are you working on one thing or multiple things? What's next?
POLZIN: It's a timely question because I just undertook a third long project, this is something I feel like I shouldn't even admit to. But Brood was the first of three long projects I started working on overlapping each other. And Brood was the first I worked on it tirelessly for a while, had to set it aside while I had a baby and finished grad school, but then picked it up again. And I guess I may be just comfortable having a very long time to think about things. I have three projects going right now. One is very neighborhood focused. It's very local. And I love exploring the idea of a neighborhood because I feel like it's very important and increasingly important. And another one is kind of about body image and it's a very frightening project for me to undertake. But I'm excited about it. I've been working on that for a while. Also that project was born of my time at Boise State. And then a story about horses. I grew up with horses from the time I was maybe five. I just started working on something with that, which is pretty exciting. And I know my family will be really helpful in sharing stories and reading the work and saying you didn't quite capture it.
PRENTICE: Well, whatever it is… and whichever is first, count me in, I do not want to give away too much here other than to say indeed, Brook is a story about loss, but also very much about discovery and a woman who looks at chickens with hope and meaning. And the book is Brood and she is Jackie Pulzin. Congratulations and thank you so very much.
POLZIN: Thank you. It's been really fun talking to you.
Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren
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